Universities urged to improve awareness of racism and white privilege

British universities have been urged to improve awareness and understanding of white privilege and microaggressions, as a vice-chancellor warned they “perpetuate institutional racism”.

Universities UK (UUK),  which represents 140 institutions, has published practical-based guidance to help universities to tackle racial harassment, after convening an advisory group to look at the issue.

The leading body said “rapid action” was needed to eliminate racial harassment for students and staff. 

Introducing the guidance, Professor David Richardson, the chair of the advisory group involved, said “the institutional racism and systemic issues that pervade the entire higher education sector” needed to be acknowledged for “meaningful change” to happen.

The UUK recommendations contains practical steps for university leaders to implement immediately, including improving awareness and understanding of racism, racial harassment, white privilege and microaggressions among all staff and student.

Anti-racist training is a way to achieve this, according to the guidance.

Other recommended steps include publicly committing a “priority status” to tackling racial harassment, and to engage directly with students and staff who have experienced it. 

The guidance from the advisory group set up by UUK also calls on senior leaders and governing bodies to acknowledge issues that exist in their universities, and that higher education “perpetuates institutional racism”.

It cites racial harassment, a lack of diversity among senior leaders and the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (Bame) student attainment gap as evidence.

“It is my firm belief that UK universities perpetuate institutional racism,” Professor Richardson, the University of East Anglia’s vice-chancellor and advisory group chair said. “This is uncomfortable to acknowledge but all university leaders should do so as a first step towards meaningful change.”

He said: “Too often black, Asian and minority ethnic students and staff have been failed. While they may have heard positive words, they have seen little action.”

Professor Richardson said the new recommendations were aimed at helping universities leaders to “put words into action and tackle racial harassment”. 

UUK called on institutions to do more to tackle racial harassment on campus in a 2019 report which found institutions had been prioritising sexual harassment and gender-based violence. 

Also last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found an “alarmingly high rate” of racial harassment on university campuses.

Nearly a quarter of ethnic minority students said they had experienced racial harassment at UK universities, according to the watchdog’s report, which concluded that many universities are unaware of the scale of the problem and are overconfident in their ability to respond to it.

Responding to the new guidance over tackling racial harassment, Jenny Sherrard from the University and College Union said: “Universities have been quick to state their anti-racist credentials in recent months, but we need more than warm words from institutions in order to ensure that our higher education sector is equal and inclusive.”

The union’s head of equalities added: “The recommendations in this report provide a solid foundation for turning words into action and embedding a culture of zero tolerance towards racial harassment across the sector.”

Professor Julia Buckingham, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University London and the UUK  president said: “All university leaders should read this guidance and implement its recommendations alongside their own activities to make a real difference to all those working and studying in our communities.”   

Additional reporting by Press Association

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